Tuesday, 17 October 2017

LFF 2017: Thelma / Downsizing /
You Were Never Really Here

The 2017 London Film Festival may have finished two days ago, but the film-reviewing fun never stops here at The Incredible Suit! Oh god please make it stop


Thelma
dir. Joachim Trier, Norway / France / Denmark / Sweden, 2017
Essentially an arthouse Carrie, Joachim Trier's Thelma is a story of one girl's sexual awakening and the inconvenient psychokinetic side effects it has on her, her classmates and her puritanical parents. There's little more to the plot than that (other than the welcome update that Thelma is simultaneously discovering she's gay), but Trier is less interested in incident than emotion, and in that he delivers in spades. Shot with icy cold beauty, and paced as leisurely as Brian De Palma's 1976 progenitor was frenzied, Thelma is a sensitive and thoughtful coming-of-age tale shot through with unsettling supernatural elements and enormous charm - not least thanks to lead actresses Eili Harboe and Kaya Wilkins. There's perhaps one dream sequence too many, and it ends just as it gets really interesting, but there's a lot to love here, particularly Trier's eye for indelible imagery and mischievous visual signposting.

Downsizing
dir. Alexander Payne, USA, 2017
Of the three entirely different films fighting for supremacy in Alexander Payne's catastrophically confused Downsizing, the one that takes up the first forty minutes or so is by far the best. That's the high-concept bit you've probably heard about, in which mankind wakes up to the fact that overpopulation is fucking the planet right up, and attempts to fix things by literally shrinking people and housing them in microcommunities where they don't suck up so many resources. There are some terrific gags in this section, and bucketloads of potential for some biting socio-political satire, but then the film suffers a massive identity crisis and inexplicably becomes the tedious tale of a man hanging with his neighbours, falling for a cleaner and feeling sorry for the poor. The fact that everyone involved is five inches tall is bafflingly forgotten, and you begin to wonder if maybe there's been a mix-up in the projection booth.

But no, it appears you're still watching Downsizing, and just as you're getting used to this new direction it shifts gears again, becoming an environmental borefest in which the end of the world is nigh and mankind faces an ultimatum: hide underground for thousands of years or stick around with your pals, die happy and leave no legacy whatsoever. Matt Damon is wasted in a role with almost zero characterisation, Kristen Wiig is wasted by being dumped before the halfway mark and Christoph Waltz, probably having more fun than anyone, just looks wasted. It's quite possible Alexander Payne has something to say about self-improvement, unquenchable dissatisfaction, the rape of the planet or prejudice against dwarfs, but his film is so colossally unfocused that it's hard to grab hold of any kind of meaning. Leave the movie at the same time Kristen Wiig does and you can go home knowing you've seen half a great film. Oh yeah also Jason Sudeikis is in it.

You Were Never Really Here
dir. Lynne Ramsay, UK / USA / France, 2017
A scuzzed-up Get Carter for the scuzzed-up America of 2017, Lynne Ramsay's gruelling follow-up to We Need To Talk About Kevin is equally as shattering as that film, but in ways that are almost impossible to describe. Joaquin Phoenix is a terrifying force of nature, less a man than an idea, bulldozing his way through a New York so poisoned by venality that Travis Bickle might think twice before stepping out of his cab. The inevitable Taxi Driver comparisons don't stop there: Phoenix's hollowed-out Joe (possibly a deliberate contraction of John Doe, given his anonymous, dead-man-walking character), a Gulf War veteran now employed as muscle for a private investigator, sets out to rescue the victim of a vice ring only to find himself up to his beard in blood and bother.

Stripped bare in terms of dialogue and plot, You Were Never Really Here moves like a shark through its revenge thriller tropes, delving into each one deeply enough to make you feel the horror, but also briefly enough to stop you suffocating in it. Just. At under ninety minutes, the whole thing is over so quickly that you're not quite sure what just hit you, and a repeat viewing is almost certainly necessary once you've had a shower and a couple of stiff drinks. Ramsay's mission statement - to tell the story in elliptically-edited vignettes with the bare minimum of information required to follow the story - demands enormous audience investment, and in dragging you down into Joe's world she deliberately disorientates you. Whether that's entirely successful or not is up to you: personally I have no idea whether or not I liked this film, but Jesus I felt it. Dark as hell with the lights off and just as unpleasant, this is fearsome filmmaking from a fearless director.

Monday, 16 October 2017

LFF 2017: 78/52

dir. Alexandre O Philippe, USA, 2017
I strongly suspect that I may have seen more Alfred Hitchcock documentaries and featurettes than actual Alfred Hitchcock films, and I say that as someone who's seen every Alfred Hitchcock film (did I mention that I watched every Alfred Hitchcock film? Oh sorry, how tedious of me, LOOK AT THIS). Laurent Bouzereau's DVD extras are the gold standard for entry-level Hitchcockery, but those filmmakers who attempt a deeper dive never quite seem to make a splash - last year's Hitchcock/Truffaut being a typically underwhelming example.

It gives me great pleasure, therefore, to declare that Alexandre O Philippe (please tell me the 'O' stands for nothing) has achieved the apparently quite tricky with 78/52, a doc that narrows its gaze right down to a single scene in Hitchcock's entire canon: the shower scene from Psycho. This isn't a film for Hitch virgins - if anything the frequent fawning of the contributors might put you off Hitchcock altogether - but it is for anyone familiar with Psycho, and it's especially for smartarses like me who thought they knew every piece of trivia about it.
For example, the "chocolate syrup" served up by the on-set caterers
was actually Janet Leigh's blood

In all honesty 78/52 begins terribly, with a bespoke recreation of scenes from Psycho so amateur-looking that you're waiting for a punchline that never comes. Once that's out of the way though, the path is clear for ninety minutes of (mostly) genuinely engrossing insight into the social and cultural context of both the film and the shower scene, followed by an exhaustive deconstruction of Marion Crane's final wash from a ragtag assortment of talking heads.

Among the yakkers are well-respected Hitch boffins like Stephen Rebello (whose book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho you'll need to read if we're ever going to be friends), Guillermo del Toro, and Peter Bogdanovich, who is contractually obliged to do his amusing Hitch impression in every interview. We could all have done without his utterly classless comment about feeling "raped" by Psycho though; why Philippe chose to keep that in is a mystery. Also judged to be experts are a handful of directors who've made shitty horror films without an ounce of Psycho's wit or technique (oh hello Eli Roth), although it turns out that Scott Spiegel (of DTV non-smash hit From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Blood Money "fame") is surprisingly erudite and insightful. And then there's Elijah Wood, who I can only assume is either a close friend of Philippe's or just happened to be passing.
The Man Who Spoke Too Much

Among the revelations (for me, anyway) are cheeky composition gags that I'd never noticed despite watching Psycho roughly eighteen thousand times; a quick but fascinating detour about the painting of Susanna And The Elders which Norman Bates uses to cover up his peephole-slash-movie-camera-metaphor; the exact type of melon stabbed to death by the foley team (Casaba, cucurbitaceae fans), and the deafeningly-obvious-once-you-hear-it point that Bernard Herrmann's score during the shower scene is effectively Marion's heartbeat.

It's the shot-by-shot analysis of that scene that truly satisfies though, with legends like Walter Murch and Gary Rydstrom exhaustively picking it to pieces until there's nothing left, and Janet Leigh's body double Marli Renfro offering a little-known viewpoint on those three minutes of era-defining, game-changing cinema. Imagine a film school class where the subject matter is genuinely fascinating and Elijah Wood keeps making unhelpful comments, and you're close to the experience of 78/52.

If the contributor sections are a tad bland-looking (they're all filmed in a recreation of a Bates Motel room, which doesn't help distinguish them from each other once the headcount hits double figures, and as usual almost everyone is white and male), then at least Philippe has assembled and nimbly edited a dazzling array of source footage. Like all the best film documentaries, it's this that makes you want to run home and watch the films it mentions immediately. And given Hitchcock's output, that's a lot of watching. But I did that already, did I mention that?

Sunday, 15 October 2017

LFF 2017: The Killing Of A Sacred Deer

dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, UK / Ireland, 2017
Like Stanley Kubrick with a better sense of humour, Yorgos Lanthimos has sliced another clinically staged, deeply macabre piece of own-brand quirkery and served it up with a dollop of the blackest comedy you're likely to find this side of Michael Haneke. If you're not chuckling at a late scene in The Killing Of A Sacred Deer that portrays the kind of horrifically upsetting situation you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy, then the Greek wizard of weird is probably not your glass of ouzo. For the rest of us twisted maniacs, though, it's heaven.

Colin Farrell reteams with Lanthimos after 2015's majestic The Lobster, playing a cardiologist with a murky past and a peculiar friendship with a gormless-looking teenager (Barry Keoghan, fresh off the beaches of Dunkirk). The relationship between these two characters becomes clearer and more disturbing as the film progresses, driving the plot remorselessly towards that aforementioned distressing - and distressingly hilarious - climax. To say much more would spoil the fun, but what transpires is, in essence, a home invasion / revenge thriller set at ninety degrees to reality; the kind of film that, if made by Hollywood, would have had Harrison Ford growling "my family" at regular intervals.
As with The Lobster, Lanthimos has his cast deliver their dialogue with the same deliberate, detached stiffness that openly signposts that what you're watching isn't real. Yet it draws so much attention to itself that you're forced to consider why it's there, which in turn has you examining everything else you see and hear in forensic detail. This technique worked wonders in the rich, satirical alternate universe of The Lobster, but there's not quite as much going on in The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, and as a result it stretches itself out perhaps a little longer than necessary.

If the film has a theme, it's less easy to extract than The Lobster's was - perhaps it's about the internal self-repulsion of having a favourite child; maybe it's more to do with the horror of losing one in circumstances beyond your control. Or maybe it's highlighting the inherent absurdity of the eye-for-an-eye retribution that has fuelled so much human misery since the dawn of time. That's Lanthimos' gift: to tell such obscure stories that you're forced to examine the entire breadth of the human condition to find meaning. He doesn't seem to mind where you land with that, but in the knowledge that your findings will probably be deeply unpleasant, he at least lets you laugh at the crushing ridiculousness of it all.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

LFF 2017: Journeyman

dir. Paddy Considine, UK, 2017
Hopes were high for Paddy Considine's long-awaited follow-up to his devastating directorial debut Tyrannosaur, from which I still haven't quite recovered six years on. The story of a boxing champion floored by a brain injury has lesser hacks than I furiously clicking open their folder of Sports Movie Pullquotes, but it pains me to say that Journeyman does not deliver a knockout blow, nor does it have the competition on the ropes, nor will you be out for the count. In fact it frustratingly pulls its punches, and it might have completely thrown in the towel were it not saved by the bell of Considine's own performance.

As world middleweight number one Matty Burton, Paddy Considine doesn't quite go the full de Niro in terms of method acting, although when we do see him fight it's bruising enough to elicit the odd wince every time a punch is landed. Outside the ring, we see that he really is the anti-Jake La Motta: a genuinely decent bloke who loves his family and doesn't even particularly want to get up in his opponent's grill at the pre-match press conference. Considine is effortlessly charming here, but as the film's writer there's a sense that he may have written himself into a too-comfortable corner; what could possibly happen to this wealthy, successful sportsman that might have the audience in anything approaching sympathy? Fortunately his boxing nemesis repeatedly informs him that their next bout will be "a life-changer", leaving us in little doubt where all this is going.
Sure enough, Burton is horrifically incapacitated after suffering one blow to the noggin too many, and this is when the problems begin for him, his family and the audience. Considine is a magnetic actor treading a fine line here, and he's to be applauded for what is clearly a well-researched, sensitive performance; similarly Jodie Whittaker, as his put-upon wife, is equally convincing. However the major misstep is in making Burton a world champion with no apparent cause for alarm as far as money is concerned. His very status makes most of what follows impossible to swallow: not only does everyone but his wife inexplicably abandon him in his time of need, but the level of care he receives is laughably underwhelming for a top-flight millionaire sporting hero.

I don't profess to be anything approaching a screenwriter, but at some point during Journeyman I couldn't help but wonder why Considine hadn't written Burton as an amateur boxer with no pre-existing support network or massive wealth. The immediately obvious drama that could have unfolded in those circumstances would have evoked infinitely more sympathy and identification, and the chance to throw in some stark social commentary could have resulted in a worthy subplot. All we get instead is the unfulfilled promise of an insight into macho male relationship dynamics and a saddening dearth of Jodie Whittaker, whose character has no real arc and is required to behave quite inexplicably towards the film's climax.

Fortunately Considine the director and actor keeps things moving, and knows which buttons to press to draw out a tear or two from even the hardest-hearted audience (hello). But he's let down here by Considine the writer, and given the cruel magic he performed with Tyrannosaur, that's a major disappointment.

Friday, 13 October 2017

LFF 2017: Brawl In Cell Block 99

dir. S Craig Zahler, USA, 2017
Those of us who have felt increasingly let down by Vince Vaughn over the years have great cause to rejoice with the advent of Bone Tomahawk brutalist S Craig Zahler’s Brawl In Cell Block 99. Channelling a ‘90s Bruce Willis in a role that even that celebrated “Hollywood hard man” might have found a smidge too murdery, Vaughn helps to shape Brawl into a slab of pulp fiction with the emphasis heavily on the pulp, not least in terms of what happens to quite a few bad guys’ faces.

Vaughn is terrific in a measured, smouldering role that sees his decent blue-collar Joe falling on hard times and turning to his former drug-running career to support his family. Predictably, a delicate deal goes south, and Vaughn finds himself heading for the titular incarceration facility where prisoners’ rights are an alien concept and survival depends on keeping your head down or taking other people's off.

The slow-burning mood is established in a tremendous early scene where a furious Vaughn carefully and methodically BEATS UP A CAR with his bare fists, savagely ripping off the bonnet before incongruously and thoughtfully removing one of the lamps from the headlight as if extracting a stone from an olive. This considered destruction sets the tone for a film that takes its sweet time getting where it’s going, which works both for and against it: the surprising intensity of the inevitable jail-based fisticuffs undoubtedly benefits from the languorous nature of the build-up, but on the other hand the first act goes on for about 70 minutes, which may be taking things a bit far.
One of the two things in this image is considerably harder than the other

As is evident by the finale though, “taking things a bit far” is absolutely the order of the day as far as Zahler is concerned. Brawl In Cell Block 99 is not really suitable for the squeamish in much the same way that a lorry load of broken glass is not really suitable for filling a sandpit: Vaughn rearranges so many body parts and faces on his voyage to the depths of humanity that the supporting cast begin to resemble some of Picasso’s more bizarrely-proportioned portraits.

It’s this head-smooshing carnage for which the film will be remembered, but that would be to neglect Vaughn’s remarkable work. He’s funny without being comedic, charming while being barbaric and his force-of-nature protagonist is a refreshing addition to the tough guy canon: at one point he takes his shirt off to reveal that not only is he not stacked like a Marvel superhero, he’s actually a bit podgy, which lends his character the kind of vulnerability and identification you don’t get with most of the generic beefcake you see onscreen.

Given its lean and mean nature, it’s surprising that there are a couple of plot developments that don’t quite add up – in fact if you think about it for long enough, the entire plot makes no sense – but that’s almost certainly not what you’ll be talking about on your way out of the cinema, if indeed you still retain the capacity for speech at all. Brawl In Cell Block 99 is jaw-dropping in more than one sense, and when you pick yours up off the floor as you leave, spare a thought for those you’ve just seen who can’t.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

LFF 2017: The Shape Of Water

dir. Guillermo del Toro, USA, 2017
For some reason I wandered into Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape Of Water thinking it was a fairy tale film for kids – a supposition borne out by the dreamy, opening shots of an underwater fantasy and Alexandre Desplat’s tinkly score. But then the first scene showed me much more of Sally Hawkins than I’d expected to see, and when she started furiously scratching a very private itch in the bath I began to suspect that perhaps this was, in fact, a fairy tale for grown-ups after all.

Despite all the itch-scratching (OK, fine, she was having a massive wank), the choice language and the Scenes Of An Adult Nature, The Shape Of Water still seems a little confused in terms of its audience. A good old-fashioned ‘80s-tinged tale of a monster who isn’t monstrous, a heartless military intent on chopping the monster into little pieces and a plucky bunch of unlikely allies determined to save it, The Shape Of Water shamelessly taps into the apparently endless current wave of nostalgia on which popular fluff like Super 8, Stranger Things, It and - to some extent – the Guardians Of The Galaxy films have successfully surfed. It’s essentially E.T., if Elliott was a lonely thirty-something woman and E.T. had a hidden pop-up cock.

If that sounds like your can of Quatro, then the good news is that del Toro does all of it in beautifully-rendered gorge-o-vision. Making good use of his Amelie filter, cinematographer Dan Laustsen paints Hawkins’ environment in deep reds, greens and browns, while the mysterious underground government facility at which she works as a cleaner is all sterile greys, its employees sporting the white short sleeved shirts and thin black ties required by the early 1960s setting.
In keeping with the nostalgic vibe, The Shape Of Water’s unnamed monster isn’t made from soulless CG (well, not entirely) but is played by del Toro stalwart Doug Jones in a rubber suit, and he deserves kudos for sidestepping unintentional ridiculous hilarity to imbue his creation with something approaching a soul. That said, he - and in fact everyone else - is trumped by Sally Hawkins for sheer emotional overwhelmitude: her sad, mute heroine Elisa is an award-worthy turn in which The Hawk uses the absence of her voice to dazzling effect, and she makes for a refreshingly original protagonist. In support are Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer as similar misfits – respectively a gay man unwelcome in “family establishments” and a black woman only too used to being referred to as “you people” by white men at work.

Those themes of otherness, prejudice and tolerance, so frequently used to unite monsters and minorities against the establishment, are subtly deployed here – almost disappointingly so. While some kind of triumph of the underdog is inevitable once you know where the story’s going, the film could still benefit from a little more sticking it to the man to be a true crowd-pleaser; it’s no exaggeration to say that The Shape Of Water isn’t quite as socially complex a film as last year’s cartoon-rabbit-and-fox-led Zootropolis.

There’s plenty of charm to go around though, Michael Shannon’s pantomime villain is great value and del Toro’s world-building is spectacularly imaginative even in this, the least outlandish of his recent films. Award noms for production and sound design and cinematography are assured, and with any luck Sally Hawkins will walk away with a trophy or two as well. In which case she would be quite justified in going home and having a massive celebratory scratch.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

LFF 2017:
Happy End / Call Me By Your Name

Here's an LFF 2017 Euro-friendly special, featuring contributions from Austrian and Italian directors. Make the most of it because once we leave the EU, Michael Haneke films will be banned and we'll have to smuggle them in up our arseholes.

Happy End
dir. Michael Haneke, France / Austria / Germany, 2017
I don't know about you, but I like my Haneke to be like a trip to the dentist: uncomfortable to the point of torture, but ultimately good for you. The likes of Funny Games and Hidden throw bourgeois complacency into such sharp relief that Haneke's natural audience should feel like they're the ones being punished as much as their on-screen avatars are, and I find that delicious. Sadly, I left Happy End feeling disappointingly guilt-free and mentally unmolested, and that's no way to walk out of a Haneke.

Formally, this is - thankfully - the same old Michael Haneke: long, static shots that force you to examine every square inch of the frame; elliptical storytelling that wilfully skips over massive plot points and expects you to keep up; the total absence of a score; Isabelle Huppert. Even thematically, all the hits are present and correct - an innocent animal suffers an unpleasant fate, familial bonds are tested to breaking point and the whole affair is colder than an Austrian winter.

But there just isn't that much to chew on. The wealthy, intellectual family unit is in place, and its constituent parts are ripe for some kind of catastrophic, perception-altering event, but it never comes. Haneke's script makes gentle forays into notions of class inequality and racial tension, but he doesn't employ them with the surgical efficiency he has in the past. Maybe he's just chilling out; he's 75, after all, and may well be tired of being so mean to the middle classes. But in turning out such a lesser work, he's denied us the exquisite horror we've come to expect, and that might be the meanest trick of all.

Call Me By Your Name
dir. Luca Guadagnino, Italy / France, 2017
I'll be honest, if Armie Hammer came round to my house for six weeks and spent most of that time lounging around in tiny shorts and dripping wet, I'd probably want to fuck him too. So identification with Call Me By Your Name's sexually uncertain 17-year-old protagonist Elio (Timothée Chalamet, the kid from Interstellar who grew up to be Casey Affleck) is easily achieved. And 132 minutes in Lombardy through Luca Guadagnino's lens is such a relaxing experience that you could easily save hundreds of pounds just watching this film instead of actually going on holiday to Italy.

Hammer and Chalamet perform a delightful verbal and physical dance around each other for much of the first act, while a hugely unsubtle, metaphorical apricot tree slowly ripens in the garden of Elio's family villa. Eventually an affair begins and, inevitably, ends, and it's tenderly portrayed by Guadagnino and his actors - not least the supporting cast, who circle the leads gently as if protecting and encouraging them from a distance.

Something about Call Me By Your Name doesn't quite click for me though: the relationship feels real enough - Guadagnino packs his film with detail, while Chalamet is effortlessly convincing - but the drama is small-scale, if such a thing can be said about a coming-of-age tale. Armie Hammer makes a man out of a boy, but he does it so delicately and incrementally that I found myself yearning for a little more turmoil. It's never dull, but given the comfortably-off intellectual but somewhat self-absorbed family at the story's centre, an appalling part of me did begin to wonder if Michael Haneke's Call Me By Your Name might have been a better movie.

Monday, 9 October 2017

LFF 2017: Last Flag Flying

dir. Richard Linklater, USA, 2017
Richard Linklater hasn't finished musing on the male bonding process just yet guys, so if the cripplingly macho / faintly homoerotic undertones of Dazed And Confused and Everybody Wants Some!! left you cold then maybe give Last Flag Flying a wide berth. That would be a shame though, because there's much more going on here than just three quinquagenarian males busting each others' balls for two hours, even though that in itself is enormously watchable.

A loose companion piece to Hal Ashby's 1973 Jack Nicholson-starrer The Last Detail, Last Flag Flying is adapted from a novel by the same author (Darryl Ponicsan) and explores similar themes of military fraternity through the prism of a road trip fuelled, as The Last Detail's was, by beer and frustration. This time round, though, the protagonists are two decades older, wearing those years on their faces like battle scars and trying to forget what their younger counterparts had yet to experience.

It's December 2003, and Steve Carell's subdued Vietnam veteran brings together Bryan Cranston's directionless alcoholic and Laurence Fishburne's reformed pastor when it transpires that they're the only friends he has who might help him cross the country to bury his son, a soldier who recently died in Iraq. The trio haven't seen each other in nearly thirty years, and their reunion is as bittersweet as anything you'd expect Linklater to lay out before you.
Bryan's fishing stories were becoming increasingly improbable

That premise might lead you to expect a catalogue of road movie clichés, but this is Richard Linklater we're talking about, so expect the unexpected. Expect a restrained performance from Steve Carell, who makes you feel his character's pain without a single moment of actorly showboating; expect mountains of dialogue tossed off with such effortless charm by the three leads that two hours fly by; expect a rigorous treatise on the concept of military heroism and the lies required to reinforce it, thereby feeding the war machine with an infinite supply of young men and women willing to lay down their lives for a flag.

Last Flag Flying is a film about comradeship in peacetime as much as in war, and while it has plenty to say about the abyss between what goes on in a warzone and how much of that filters through to the public's eyes and ears, it never stoops to preaching. Linklater is passionate about respect for others' beliefs, principles and wishes, and that respect is both championed and questioned throughout his film. His preoccupations with notions of masculinity are given a thorough workout too, with each of the lead characters displaying all the pros and cons of a range of archetypes: at one point, Fishburne and Cranston are almost literally the angel and devil on Carell's shoulders, leading you to wonder how they might possibly get through the film without killing each other.

Thought-provoking without being didactic despite a clear anti-war stance, this is Linklater in a melancholy but stirringly intelligent frame of mind. It's funny when it needs to be (a scene involving a discussion of Bryan Cranston's penis is eye-watering) and everyone is firing on all cylinders to ensure you won't be bored, but there are depths to Linklater's script that deserve your consideration. Incomparable with, yet intrinsically connected to, his Before trilogy, his college-based comedies or the epic sprawl of Boyhood, Last Flag Flying is the work of a director still capable of surprising with familiarity.

Friday, 6 October 2017

LFF 2017: Filmworker

dir. Tony Zierra, USA, 2017
While starring as Lord Bullingdon in Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, Leon Vitali became so smitten with the filmmaking process that he gave up acting to become The Kube's assistant and dogsbody for the rest of the director's life and beyond, and his fascinating story is clumsily told in this maddeningly haphazard documentary.

Visible in all those behind the scenes featurettes on The Shining that you really should have seen by now, Vitali played a major role in casting terrifying toddler Danny Lloyd and looking after him on set, and from there went on to provide invaluable assistance to Kubrick on and between each of his films. A career at the side of one of cinema's greatest artists (and, as is quite evident, most hair-tearingly difficult people) eventually evolved into something much less enviable, as Vitali became Kubrick's all-round bitch, physically and mentally suffering under the weight of his boss's increasingly unreasonable demands.
And that's why he had Kubrick shrunk and stuffed.

Vitali is an undeniably compelling subject for fans of Kubrick's work, but Tony Zierra's film about him is so hamfistedly edited that it's not until roughly the halfway point that you realise exactly why all these contributors are speaking so effusively about him. Zierra takes so long to explain just what Vitali did and how badly he was treated that for the best part of an hour he comes across as something of a chancer, improbably exaggerating his role in bringing some of the greatest films ever made into being. It's a critical error, because you end up warming to Vitali way too late in the game, lessening the emotional impact of the latter stages.

Once you've collected all the pieces of the puzzle and mentally rearranged them in a way that makes sense (which was essentially Zierra's job), the overall picture is a sad one: a picture of a man who sacrificed too much to do what he loved without the credit or respect he deserved. And when you realise Vitali's story is typical of hundreds of poor, unsung buggers in the film industry - in any industry, in fact - the story takes on a universal significance.

To Zierra's credit, he sneaks in a lot of terrific non-Vitali titbits for Kubriphiles to lap up (the story of Full Metal Jacket's door gunner is heartbreaking), but he fails at the simple task of coherently telling the story he sets out to, making Filmworker one for fans only, and patient ones at that.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049

If further proof were required of the need for Ridley Scott to step away from directing more entries in Ridley Scott-instigated franchises, the Denis Villeneuve-helmed Blade Runner 2049 is it. I mean Scott's Prometheus should have provided sufficient evidence for this argument but that didn't stop his Alien Covenant happening, and look at us now: adrift in a once-beloved series of films which is now 67% vomit.

Anyway I'm not here to shit on the Alien franchise or Ridley Scott. God knows Blade Runner 2049 reeks of him in all the best ways and few of the worst, enhancing and expanding upon the mud-thick mood and atmosphere he conjured up in Blade Runner 2019 (why Warner Home Video haven't renamed it that and re-released every available cut of it is a marketing mystery). Villeneuve's epic, almost comically grandiose vision reaches into every nook and cranny of the sequel but it couldn't exist without everything Scott - alongside cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, production designer Lawrence G Paull and "visual futurist" (sure) Syd Mead - achieved in the original.
The original Blade Runner. You've probably never heard of it.

While the Hovis-peddling Geordie came up with the idea for 2049 then graciously took a back seat, the 1982 vintage's splendidly-monikered writer Hampton Fancher is back after 35 years in semi-wilderness, and he's turned out a much more satisfying script this time despite being aided by Michael Green, whose past triumphs include, uh, Green Lantern and - yep - Alien Covenant. Example: the original Blade Runner is often criticised for Deckard's (Harrison Ford) rubbish detective skills (to be fair he isn't actually a detective, he just has a magic box that can see round corners in photographs), but the sequel features a thoroughly thought-out trail of breadcrumbs for new replicant-retirer K (Ryan Gosling) to follow, and it's a mystery you'll be unpacking for hours post-viewing.

Officer K's odyssey carries him through a panoply of cosmically stunning-looking interiors and exteriors, envisaged by Villeneuve and executed by Roger Deakins and Dennis Gassner (replacing Cronenweth and Paull respectively) with alternately nightmarish and divine genius. The Neo-Tokyo look of Ridley Scott's 2019 version of LA has been amplified and compounded into an oceanic sprawl of densely-packed tower blocks that just about allow room for the crass neon advertising (Pan Am are doing surprisingly well in 2049) and little else, while calmer spaces offer an incongruous serenity offset only by the bristly, unpredictable characters who inhabit them. Meanwhile the score - an imposing, unsettling combination of Vangelis' original themes fused with Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer's thundering chords - leaves you in no doubt that this is a colossal, earth-shattering journey we're on.

Except... it isn't. I've spent this long wanging on about how technically wondrous Blade Runner 2049 is (and forgive me, I haven't even mentioned Renée April's eyeball-strokingly fit costume design) mainly because I don't want to give away any of the plot, but also because what there is of that plot is kind of, well... low-key. Not so much as the original, but given how big Villeneuve goes with everything else here, the core mystery feels microscopic in comparison. Bigger consequences are threatened in the event that Officer K fails to successfully run his blades, but never to a point where you really, really need him to win. It's a bit like having a Bond film where the villain's plan is, say, to restrict access to clean water: clearly undesirable, but not particularly cinematic.
"Please don't make this about Bond"

And so we're left with those themes of artificial intelligence, identity and slavery that coldly mooch about in the original Blade Runner without ever threatening to stir the emotions, and which do much the same here. The existential angst Officer K endures is welcome, given that it was mainly left to Rutger Hauer's pretentious prick replicant to pontificate on the (in)human condition in 1982, but Gosling - as much as I love him - has trouble expressing that angst; the one scene in which he displays anything other than cool detachment hovers a little too close to unintentionally amusing. Sure, he's essentially a stoic noir gumshoe archetype, used to keeping his head down and his mouth shut for reasons I won't go into, but K goes through some serious headfuckery that requires a little more than the trademark blank stare Gosling favours here. At some point Villeneuve should have reminded him that this wasn't a Nicolas Winding Refn film.

In place of genuine emotion, there is at least genuine entertainment, not least from the appearance of one H. Ford, whose cheese-based first line is dangerously daft to the ears of the non-literary-minded among us (hi). Ford pulls off his return to a much-loved role as successfully here as he did in The Force Awakens, and Deckard's first meeting with Officer K is a literal and visual bruiser. But further joy is to be found in the performances of Robin Wright (as K's boss), whose face and hair I could gawp at for hours; Ana de Armas (as K's hologrammatic housewife Joi), who comes closest to evoking sympathy for what is basically an app; and Sylvia Hoek's high-kicking henchbitch Luv. Jared Leto is fine but ineffectual and talks in clichéd ponderous villainese, and Dave Bautista is fucking massive.
Henchbitches gonna hench

Plot holes are inevitable in something so ambitious, and these minor irritations undermine the project's overwhelming pomp to remind you that it was made by humans after all, despite the bafflingly reverential raves you may have read. And needless to say, at 163 minutes it's in dire need of a haircut here and there. If Blade Runner 2049 fails at all it's because where it should be emotionally devastating it's only mildly thought-provoking, but then it is a sequel to Blade Runner: hardly cinema's most overwhelmingly sentimental experience. 2049 is still essential for fans of the original and nigh-unmissable for the rest of us, and whatever its flaws, it's crucial to remember just how bad it could have been. Ridley Scott could have directed it.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

LFF 2017:
9 Fingers / Good Manners / 1%

Like some kind of annual festival of film based in London, the London Film Festival is once again upon us, promising another selection box of cinematic treats of vastly disparate quality. But given this bewildering choice, how do you know which film is the delicious pink-wrapped fudge and which is the satanically evil coffee cream? Well, don't ask me, I'm the last person you should rely on. Maybe try a proper film critic or something. Anyway let's kick off with three films I sincerely hope you haven't paid good money to see.

9 Fingers
dir. FJ Ossang, France/Portugal, 2017
A low-level gangster gets involved in a bungled heist and eventually finds himself trapped on a cargo ship with almost as little clue about what's going on as the audience, in this aggressively inscrutable ordeal from Gallic provocateur FJ Ossang. What begins as an intriguing modern French noir swiftly degenerates into impenetrable nonsense, with the added frustration that there's almost certainly some vaguely interesting satire going on somewhere within. I say "satire" because a strong whiff of political metaphor permeates the film, but what it's trying to say remains an unsolvable mystery; maybe you have to be French to understand the stream of non-sequiturs that make up the script, but I suspect even that would afford minimal advantage.

Themes of madness, revolution, control and destiny hover vaguely in the film's margins without ever coalescing into anything tangible, and it's a deeply alienating experience. Reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky's π in its low-budget, claustrophobic surrealism - but without any of the promise towards which that film hinted - this is punk filmmaking on a baffling scale.

Good Manners
dir. Juliana Rojas & Marco Dutra, Brasil/France, 2017
Imagine Let The Right One In with a werewolf instead of a vampire, and you've got the very film writer / directors Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra were probably hoping to make with this. Alas, the end product is a toothless horror-drama so lacking in both horror and drama that it'll have you howling for freedom from its near-interminable running time.

Split into two tonally contrasting halves, Good Manners begins slowly and stays that way as Clara, a nanny in São Paulo, is hired by shallow wannabe-socialite Ana to help her around the house in the run-up to the birth of her baby. Things eventually become interesting around the half-hour mark, but it's not until an hour in that events take a turn for the slightly gory but unintentionally silly, when Ana's baby finally bares its teeth. Part two picks up the pace a little, but it's let down by lengthy gaps between exciting episodes and a distinct smell of cheapness when they finally appear. It's interesting to note that no men are seen in the film's first hour, leading you to think that this might be a worthy comment on single motherhood or sororal bonds, but by the time the no-frills CGI is unleashed and the film dissolves into genre schlock you've forgotten all about any potential it may have once held. Plus it's 130 minutes long and literally nobody needs that.

1%
dir. Stephen McCallum, Australia, 2017
Every year, by law, the London Film Festival is required to screen at least one Australian crime drama, and its write-up in the LFF brochure MUST make reference to Animal Kingdom - a connection more often than not justified solely by the fact that Animal Kingdom is also an Australian crime drama. A further clause in this improbable piece of legislation is that the film in question must be nowhere near as good as Animal Kingdom, and in 2017 the film that meets all these legal requirements is 1%.

A testosterone-drenched machogasm about internal rivalries in a biker gang, 1% comes across as Macbeth on motorbikes but never shifts up enough gears to become the Shakespearean Triumph it wants to be. I appreciate that it's tough to make a film in which every character is morally reprehensible and still have the audience care about them, but at this - unlike, say, Animal Kingdom1% falls flat on its tattooed face. Literally everyone is horrible, and there's no Ben Mendelsohn to make it OK. Moreover, the potentially gripping power struggle between the nominal protagonist and antagonist (the Vice President and President of the gang respectively, as if it's a fucking country club) suffers from the fact that it's hard to give a shit about either of them given that they're both massive twats.

Writer and actor Matt Nable awards himself the best role, as old-school psycho Knuck (the Duncan to Ryan Corr's Macbeth), and he's the most charismatic presence on screen despite giving himself the worst dialogue: he barks "FACK OFF CANT!" with admirable brio but it's hardly Bard-y. Nable's depictions of the gangs at least feels authentic and researched (their leather waistcoat "colours", which bear their rank and name, are too ridiculous to be made up), and there's an underlying sense of uncomfortable menace throughout. Also of minor interest is the contrasting world views of the leads: one is forward-thinking and inclusive, the other an unhinged isolationist, and they're both too blinkered to spot a mutual threat lurking in the background. In the moment, however, there's nothing memorable about 1% to allow it anywhere near Animal Kingdom in the pantheon of Australian crime dramas; we await 2018's entry with ever-fading hope.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Ten films I'm going to see at the 2017 London Film Festival even if I have to wait until they're on Netflix, goddammit

It's just a few weeks, some days and an hour or two until the 61st London Film Festival takes over literally everyone's lives, and if you're not excited about it then you must be the kind of person who leads a fairly healthy lifestyle. Can we meet up one day and chat about it? A friend of mine needs tips on how to be a better person.

Anyway, because I labour under the misapprehension that someone else might be interested, here are the ten films I'm most tumescent about at #LFF2017, along with some stills from those very films to make this post mildly more interesting to look at. If you're really mental you might even enjoy the reasoning behind my carefully-curated choices, so I've shoved all that shit in too. Enjoy!

78/52
As should be painfully clear by now, I bloody love Alfred Hitchcock. I also bloody love deep dives into tiny but unutterably significant moments in film history, and Psycho's shower scene definitely counts as one of those, I've checked. 78/52 spends 91 minutes looking at the 78 setups and 52 cuts that make up the scene; I would have preferred a ten-part series on the whole of Foreign Correspondent but you don't get anything in life if you don't make it yourself.

Amant Double
I didn't even know François Ozon's latest film existed until the LFF's press launch last week, when Festival Director Clare Stewart calmly described it as channeling Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma. If that isn't enough to make you try and book tickets, which will probably be an exercise in hair-tearing futility if previous booking experiences are anything to go by, then you're a dickhead, bugger off.

Call Me By Your Name
I failed miserably at watching Luca Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash, so am hoping to catch this in an attempt to justify my claims to be a person who knows things about films. Plus if everything I've read about it is true then watching it should feel like going on a nice sunny holiday without the unbelievable stress of packing, so two thumbs up to that.

Downsizing
Kristen Wiig is in it, job done, next

Happy End
I've been schooling myself in the ways of The Haneke over the summer, which has been an absolute LOL riot I can tell you. I don't know if you've ever seen Funny Games but that is a tremendous knockabout comedy to watch with the kids, while Amour is a feelgood romcom for the whole family, especially granny and grandad. So this, which has the word "Happy" in the title, cannot be anything but an equally enormous bucket of sparkly joy.

The Killing Of A Sacred Deer
After The Lobster I would watch anything Yorgos Lanthimos does. In fact I did, I watched Alps, but I didn't like it. Still let's give the fella a chance, he might get lucky again.

Last Flag Flying
I am here for anything Richard Linklater does so this is a total no-brainer. In fact I am so committed to this film that I bought a DVD of The Last Detail (to which this is a loose sequel) off eBay for £6.99 so I could be fully up to speed. A bit pricey tbh but it did arrive the next day, so thanks "jma3691", I will definitely leave you positive feedback even though you haven't left any for me. I mean I paid, like, immediately, so I really don't know what your fucking problem is.

The Shape Of Water
Not terribly sure about this in all honesty, having never actually enjoyed a Guillermo Del Toro film, but it looks kind of weird and Sally Hawkins is in it so you've got to give it a go haven't you. Pretty sure the trailer gives away a major plot point though, and if that proves to be the case it will only strengthen my anti-trailer stance, which is already pretty solid. So WATCH OUT, HOLLYWOOD MARKETING TYPES!

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Having said all that about trailers, the one for this features Frances McDormand swearing her face off and it's very funny and probably convinced me to see the film, so maybe trailers are OK after all? Man, it's hard being committed to a strong personal belief these days.

You Were Never Really Here
I literally know nothing about this except Lynne Ramsay made it, and if you've seen We Need To Talk About Kevin then you'd better be queuing up for this too, otherwise you're a steaming poo with poo for brains and poo coming out of your mouth and ears and probably your eyes too.

*

The 2017 London Film Festival runs from the 4th to the 15th of October (2017, obviously) and you can see even more exhaustive information than you've just read about it here. Goodbye!

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

A slightly above average weekend at the cinema with Detroit and Logan Lucky

Oh hi. So, I guess you're after a recommendation for what to see at the cinema this weekend? You probably fancy something that's, like, quite good but not too good? I mean, maybe you even want to do a double bill of films that don't really have a lot wrong with them but at the same time will only really stay with you for an hour or so at best? Well, I suppose you're in luck because this weekend sees the release of Detroit and Logan Lucky, both of which really are absolutely, completely fine. Also out is American Made; I haven't seen it but all indications are that it's equally worthy of three and a half stars out of five, so you really are spoiled for choice.
"Norwich. One. Adult. Afternoon. Detroit. No. Detroit.
No. DETROIT. NO. DEE-TROIT. *sigh* No. Detroit. No."

Detroit is the one to go for if you want to get absolutely boiling with rage at some indescribably reprehensible racism that actually happened but to then have that strength of feeling tempered by some curious storytelling choices. (Why you might actually be looking for that exact experience is beyond me, but it takes all sorts.) The 1967 'Algiers Motel Incident' is an ugly chapter of US history that everyone should know because it's not even history; this shit is still going on somewhere right now. Kathryn Bigelow is pissed off about it and makes sure you will be too, ably assisted by John Boyega doing probably his best work yet as a desperate peacekeeper struggling to maintain his composure and dignity in the face of staggering injustice.

Bigelow realises the drama with stifling tension and palpable horror, but is let down by a script that never quite seems to get going. After half an hour of meandering scene-setting, the entire middle act sees the Incident unfold in real time as one protracted, claustrophobic scene, and while the intention is no doubt to keep us trapped in that motel with those people, the feeling that's achieved is closer to frustration than fear. And when - just as you think it's winding up - a courtroom drama suddenly starts to unfold, you wonder if this is the same film you started watching nearly two hours ago.

Bigelow's casting hampers proceedings too: although Boyega is terrific and most of the supporting cast are solid, Will Poulter is too young to convince as the nails-hard bastard cop intimidating the likes of Anthony Mackie, and his eyebrows are hella distracting. Meanwhile Jack Reynor, a fellow racist asshole police officer, comes across like Father Dougal in a different uniform, and John Krasinski's sudden appearance in the finale pulls you right out of the film. The young black cast do a great job though, especially Algee Smith as a frustrated soul singer thrust into an unimaginable nightmare. Important and effective, then, but Detroit ultimately feels like a flawed filmmaking experiment. So, y'know, see that if you like.
"Sounds slightly above average. Anything else on?"

Less politically explosive but equally fine, I suppose, is the movie that marks the end of Steven Soderbergh's comically short-lived retirement from filmmaking, Logan Lucky. Soderbergh, the undisputed master of making perfectly adequate films that nobody ever needs to see twice, has worked his slightly above average magic on this heist movie which has marginally more going for it than against it.

Channing Tatum and Adam Driver - as the brothers who plot to knock off the vault at the local Speedway stadium during one of those NASCAR race things Americans seem to enjoy so much - are almost casually great, but it's Daniel Craig's turn as explosives expert Joe Bang that nudges Logan Lucky from a mere 6 out of 10 to the giddy heights of a 7. There's a distinct sense of Craig deliberately getting as far away from Bond as possible here, and it feels like as much of a cathartic experience for him as us.

Soderbergh directs with characteristic slickness, David Holmes' score is perhaps his sexy-funkiest since Out Of Sight, and Rebecca Blunt's script pulls off a splendid Game Of Thrones gag amongst its satisfyingly-plotted heist shenanigannery. But it all feels a little empty: there's an early sense that Blunt might be going somewhere with her tale of just-about-managing blue collar everymen in the South Atlantic states, fucked by the system and committing a crime where the only victims are giant corporations, but that's as far as it goes. And while Tatum's Jimmy Logan isn't a dunce (despite the North Carolina accent, which is generally movie shorthand for 'Inbred Redneck Halfwit'), his plan is so suspiciously complex and foresighted that he could easily get work as a Hollywood scriptwriter. Still, Daniel Craig does say "Ah'm about ta git nekkid back hee-er" in an Inbred Redneck Halfwit accent, so there's that.

So that's an exhaustive rundown of everything that's quite good at the cinema this weekend that I've seen. It may interest you to know that A Ghost Story is still out there and is utterly brilliant, so, you know, think about it is all I'm saying.

Monday, 7 August 2017

A Ghost Story

Fresh off the scaly back of Disney behemoth Pete's Dragon, director David Lowery tossed off this tiny but cosmically breathtaking drama in roughly the amount of time it would have taken Weta to animate one of Elliot the dragon's footsteps. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play a couple forced into somewhat difficult circumstances when Affleck suddenly becomes inconveniently dead, and his subsequent sheet-shrouded attempt to process this turn of events (while doomed to spend the afterlife stuck in his house) drives an exquisitely eerie and refreshingly original film right into the pit of your soul.

I'll be honest, I was ready to give my heart to A Ghost Story when I realised it was shot and presented in a vignetted 4:3 aspect ratio. Evoking the aesthetic of a movie shot via Instagram (suggested filter name: Spectral), Andrew Droz Palermo's cinematography beautifully captures the caged ennui of Casey Affleck's ghost, trapped for eternity in a single location and unable to escape the confines of the camera's restricted frame. Lowery takes the boldest of decisions with his image, too: one unforgettable, static shot lasts a full four minutes, during which almost nothing at all happens apart from the consumption of a large pie. It's wonderful.
Woooooo-ney Mara

The Pie Shot, as I suspect it will soon come to be known, epitomises A Ghost Story's narrative technique. It's a film with very little dialogue (besides an incongruously verbose key sequence in the middle), relying instead on Affleck and Mara's body language to convey much of the emotion. Daniel Hart's gorgeous score helps, constantly amplifying the sense of unease, but without ever telling you how to feel. And though Lowery tells his tale sedately, time becomes an irrelevance as the story progresses. The passage of time dilates and compresses to incomprehensible extents around Affleck's ghost - as haunted as he is haunting - and his featureless countenance (save for two impenetrably black eyeholes) becomes a literal blank canvas, on which you find yourself projecting your own feelings about what it might be like to be forevermore undead and helpless to do anything about it.

After a while the film's Big Question is posed in a slightly jarring monologue from a motormouth smartass credited only as 'Prognosticator', and Lowery's preoccupations become clear. What is it that endures when everything tangible crumbles into dust? Is it love? Is it hope? Is it art? Themes of mortality and the remorseless march of time coalesce around a poor dead bastard in a blanket, as such titanic achievements as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony are weighed up against the simplicity of a short, private message between lovers for their respective universal significance.

All the while, Casey Affleck sports one of the most simple but effective costume designs since Borat's mankini. The childlike sheet-with-eyeholes idea is bold but comes layered with meaning, and like all iconic costumes it even gets its own origin story. As the afterlife extends beyond all practical context, it seems that the sheet lengthens too, becoming an ever-more unbearable burden on the spook's shoulders, and even the eyeholes appear to elongate with sadness as infinity takes its toll.
That's the spirit

Lowery jokes that he pitched the film as Beetlejuice remade by Apichatpong Werathesakul; it brought to my mind an arthouse version of Ghost minus all the fucking pottery, but neither description does it justice. There are moments in A Ghost Story that will stay with me forever. Two of them occur during two separate conversations between two ghosts: tiny, fleeting instances of heartbreaking beauty that stunned me by quickly and surgically reaching inside me and flicking a switch that no other film has for years. Maybe it won't have the same effect on you, and if not then that's fine, but I'm sorry to report that you're as dead inside as Casey Affleck's wretched wraith.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The Big Sick

If comedy and tragedy were people, they'd be the lead characters in The Big Sick. Kumail Nanjiani (Kumail Nanjiani) (I'm not just repeating his name for the sake of it, he plays himself) is the stand-up comic whose life as a Pakistani immigrant in Chicago is a bottomless mine of hilarious cultural awkwardness, while therapist Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan) is his foil: a pixie dream girl of the refreshingly non-manic variety for whom fate has Very Bad Things in store. Thrown together in an inevitable meet-cute, Kumail and Emily, in their guises as comedy and tragedy, enhance and feed off each other to create a romtragicom of surprising depth, pinpoint perception and deceptively powerful sweetness.

Nanjiani - who wrote The Big Sick with the real Emily, his wife Emily V. Gordon, about the turbulent first months of their relationship - understands the combined powers of comedy and tragedy better than most, and their script revels in the former for its first act before throwing an almighty spanner in the works and becoming something quite unexpected. When tragedy strikes, it isn't a cue for comedy to take a back seat but for it to evolve; to become a crutch, a unifier, a lubricant to ease the healing process.
The Big Sick isn't about comedy per se, but it uses it so deftly that its script deserves to be picked apart by future generations of comedians. Barely a joke goes by that's just there to provoke a laugh: every gag enriches the characters or wrings its context for added value. There's a 9/11 joke in there that would be amusing enough if you heard it at a gig, but delivered in the framework of the story it's possibly the funniest moment in cinema this year. And Judd Apatow's involvement as producer is barely noticeable in the best way: dick jokes, tedious fratpack back-slapping and shouting and swearing in place of actual humour are nowhere to be seen here (OK, there's shouting and swearing, but for once it's actually funny).

What it is about, quite shamelessly sentimentally, is family, and the intricate complexities thereof. The surreal nature of arranged marriages in Muslim culture is juxtaposed with the western ideal - which is laid bare as hardly any more likely to succeed - and the relaxed comfort of surrogate families, whether they're lifelong friends or just people thrown together by circumstance. That might all sound excruciatingly worthy and unfunny, but it really isn't: the supporting cast - including Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Four Lions' Adeel Akhtar and Bollywood legend Anupam Kher - all chip in note-perfect performances that add individual brands of lols without resorting to stereotypes.
If there's a bum note then it's in the improbable swiftness with which one of the staple elements of the romcom is executed, but it's necessary to move the plot on before the already troubling two-hour running time swells any further. The Big Sick never outstays its welcome though, comfortably riding a wave of charm, wit and old-fashioned feelgoodery to find itself one of the year's best comedies. And, for that matter, tragedies.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Dunkirk

To coincide with the release of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan curated a season of films at the BFI which influenced his WWII carnival of trauma. "Our season explores the mechanics and uses of suspense to modulate an audience's response to narrative," Nolan explained, and while he might have sounded like some kind of emotion-curious automaton, that declaration of intent - alongside the films he chose - reveals much about Dunkirk's provenance and objectives. Speed's 'Die Hard in a lift / on a bus / on a train' mission statement, for example, can be transposed to Dunkirk's 'Die Hard on the beach / in the sea / in the air' approach; the visual storytelling of silent classics Greed and Sunrise is a key tool in Nolan's dialogue-light, action-heavy movie, and the impact of the climactic plane crash in Hitchcock's tremendous Foreign Correspondent is also blindingly apparent - although for different reasons, Nolan could just as easily have picked Hitch's Lifeboat.

But despite the umbilical connections to all these cinematic progenitors, Dunkirk is first and foremost very much its own thing: a unique, bold, experimental film which - while probably not quite Nolan's greatest achievement - could only have been made by someone with his clout and ambition. And given that, for me, Christopher Nolan's ambition often outstrips his storytelling abilities (unpopular opinion: Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar are all loaded with promise but trip over their own narrative shoelaces), it's a welcome relief that this time he's crafted more of an experience than a story. Virtually ditching characterisation and traditional notions of narrative, Dunkirk is less a movie than an ordeal. And I mean that, for the most part, in a good way.
Opening with the title in that familiar Univers Bold font and the sound of the director's own pocket watch ticking away with relentless urgency, Dunkirk is immediately and obviously a Christopher Nolan film. Tick-tick-tick mutates violently into a deafening rat-a-tat as a troop of British soldiers ambling through the deserted streets of Dunkirk are fired on by unseen German snipers, and there's no safety net in the casting to let you know who will or won't survive the attack: all these young men are anonymously similar. Most of the lead characters don't even get named - only in the end credits do we find out that one of our protagonists is wryly named Tommy, for whom ze var is most definitely not over.

That opening scene sets the tone for the next hundred minutes: tension, disorientation, a hidden enemy and extremely loud noises are very much the order of the day. A disparate bunch of unknowns spend the next week desperately trying to get the fuck out of France and back home in one piece while Nolan amusingly forces Big Names to stay in one place and do very little: Spitfire pilot Tom Hardy barely leaves the confines of his cockpit-set close-up, Cillian Murphy shivers with PTSD, Mark Rylance is stuck at the wheel of his fishing boat and Ken Branagh stands on a pier looking stoic. Even Michael Caine is relegated to a voice cameo.
The lack of complex characters might draw criticism from some, but it's a deliberate choice. Dunkirk is about the experience of survival, and Nolan strips away everything that might get in the way of us feeling on edge for the duration of the film. There are no moments of Spielbergian melodrama, no chances to get to know anyone's tragic backstory and certainly no attempts to show that hey, those guys trying to kill our boys are just flipsides of the same coin, man. We never cut to bloated generals pushing model planes around a map in Whitehall and we never see a single German face. Nolan isn't interested in war as a complex investigation of humanity, where the best and worst aspects of mankind can be found in the unlikeliest of places; for his soldiers, war is an endless, merciless death machine to be escaped from as quickly as possible, whatever the cost.

It's odd, then, that Dunkirk remains a bloodless affair. Nolan's decision to focus on suspense rather than the flying limbs and guts of, say, Saving Private Ryan's visceral opening and closing scenes lend it an incongruous air of false safety at odds with the thick seam of authenticity running through the rest of the film. It's a minor quibble, but the odd splash of claret could have upped the stakes even further. Instead, in an effort to heighten the tension, Nolan allows Hans Zimmer the freedom to carpet bomb the film with his most ludicrous, histrionic and distracting score yet. Barely a scene goes by without screaming strings or electronically enhanced horns blasting out at comically overblown volume, wilfully overlooking the dramatic effect that a well-placed moment of silence or two can bring.

Fortunately, Nolan's eye for a shot more or less makes up for his cloth ears. There are images in Dunkirk of such aching wonder - especially if witnessed on the appropriately majestic scale of an IMAX screen - that blow the mind. Dogfights between the RAF and the Luftwaffe are reminiscent of George Lucas' best X-wing moments (ironically, since Lucas shoved footage of WWII films into Star Wars before aerial sequences were finished), the beaches of Dunkirk stretch off into infinite bleakness and the scale of everything is brain-boggling. Tiny figures of men dot the vast expanses of sand, ridiculously tiddly fishing boats pootle across miles of unforgiving English Channel to aid the rescue, and even those Spitfires and Messerschmitts find themselves almost lost against the beauty of a clear, bright sky. The idea that all this is somehow cosmically futile is expressed with elegant awe.
Nolan lays all this out in typically tangled fashion, cutting between the week-long experience of the stranded soldiers, the day-long mission of the "little ships" that stepped in when the Navy was found lacking, and the hour-long airborne skirmish with a deliberate disregard for temporal sense. It's a technique that boosts the tension, but on a first viewing it's also unnecessarily confusing for too long, distracting attention from the story while your brain tries to hop between timelines. And while I'm nitpicking, I have no idea what the mechanics of Dunkirk's ostensibly climactic moment were: Nolan spends most of the film avoiding cliché, but then inserts a late flourish of heroic action which is unexpectedly directorially bungled.

Nevertheless, Dunkirk is quite an achievement even by Christopher Nolan's standards. It's a commendably original, ruthlessly effective sensory assault that pushes mainstream cinema further than anything else has for a long time, and that's not to be underestimated. It's also subtly patriotic without being jingoistic, especially in its treatment of the ordinary folks back home who risked their lives sailing their rickety tugboats across the Channel to pick up complete strangers in dire need. The Dunkirk spirit soaks through every frame, and it's a timely reminder that if we're so desperate to get away from Europe then we're going to need every drop of it.